SPRING GROVE – Hannah Koeppl of Spring Grove first learned about the Peace Corps in her high school history class while studying the John F. Kennedy administration.
She was 17 years old at the time. After that, she was hooked and decided to apply for the corps after she finished college.
“One thing led to another, and I found myself there,” Koeppl said. Koeppl, a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, is scheduled to leave Monday for Guinea. Her primary assignment will be as a secondary education physics teacher. She also will work on public health initiatives to address concerns such as malaria and HIV/AIDS.
Koeppl’s majors from UIC are biological sciences and French Francophone studies, which is the study of any French-speaking culture, including countries such as Guinea that used to be French colonies. Although she always wanted to join the Peace Corps, Koeppl went into her studies intending to have a career in public health and conservation biology.
Koeppl’s education, along with her volunteer experience in alternative spring breaks teaching health workshops in Chicago Public Schools and study abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, showed that she would be best suited for her assignment, said Jessica Mayle, public affairs coordinator for the Peace Corps Midwest region.
“What we really look for is people making a commitment to making a difference,” Mayle said. “That makes it easier to place them. You can learn new skills, but that commitment is what makes Peace Corps volunteers special.”
Koeppl is one of 16 McHenry County residents serving in the Peace Corps. According to Mayle, 262 McHenry County residents have served since the corps’ creation in 1961. Currently, 352 Illinois residents are serving in the Peace Corps, according to a June 20 Peace Corps news release, and 8,157 Illinois residents have served since its creation in 1961.
Mayle said the application process to join the Peace Corps takes nine to 12 months; for Koeppl, it took nine.
Koeppl also had to research the Guinean culture and will spend three months with her host family to learn the country’s language dialects and cultural norms before beginning her two-year assignment.
Koeppl said her parents have been supportive aside from some safety worries. She said she also loves educating her extended family when they ask about her destination.
“Yeah, I’ll be away from home for two years, but this is such a rare and unique opportunity for me,” Koeppl said. “It’ll be sad and nostalgic, but since my family knows it’s something that I’ve been wanting to pursue for a really long time, they’ve been really supportive.”
Koeppl is nervous about being away from home and potential communication problems, but she remains optimistic about the experience.
“I’m really excited to immerse myself in the culture and gain a new perspective – to learn a new language, to eat new food, learning about the values of the culture and living close to the earth,” Koeppl said. “It sounds a little tree-hugger, but I live in the concrete jungle of Chicago.”